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The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoningby Maggie Nelson
Synopses & Reviews
Today both reality and entertainment crowd our fields of vision with brutal imagery. The pervasiveness of images of torture, horror, and war has all but demolished the twentieth-century hope that such imagery might shock us into a less alienated state, or aid in the creation of a just social order. What to do now? When to look, when to turn away? Genre-busting author Maggie Nelson brilliantly navigates this contemporary predicament, with an eye to the question of whether or not focusing on representations of cruelty makes us cruel. In a journey through high and low culture (Kafka to reality TV), the visual to the verbal (Paul McCarthy to Brian Evenson), and the apolitical to the political (Francis Bacon to Kara Walker), Nelson offers a model of how one might balance strong ethical convictions with an equally strong appreciation for work that tests the limits of taste, taboo, and permissibility.
"The gory, brutal images that swamp modern culture are stupefying and dehumanizing — or maybe not, argues this richly ambivalent study. Poet Nelson (Bluets) surveys cruel art, lowbrow and high, flitting among Hollywood torture-porn and sadistic reality shows, avant-garde films and performance pieces, poetry and literary fiction, and photographs of abused Abu Ghraib prisoners. She repeatedly circles back to a few cruelty auteurs like the painter Francis Bacon and the poet Sylvia Plath. This panorama provokes strong reactions in her, but no dogmas. Nelson rejects the modernist claim that brutality in art provokes cathartic reactions that shock us out of alienation and into social justice, but rejects also the notion that cruel art makes people cruel; she wearies of the entertainment industry's cynical assaults on taste and sensibility — 'Ã¢Â€Â˜neither I nor the world will be a better place if I ingest a particular cruelty'' — while celebrating provocations that she believes have an undeniable artistic power. Nelson's erudition and wide fluency in artistic and philosophical traditions yield many subtle, insightful readings (her meditation on 'brutal honesty' is especially good). But her view of her lurid subject is sometimes too nuanced and unsatisfying. (July)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Book News Annotation:
Poet and critic Nelson (critical studies, California Institute of the Arts, Los Angeles) explores the notion that readers and viewers of art need to be shocked out of complacency before they can learn anything new, and how it has been applied recently. Her topics include theaters of cruelty, everything is nice, nobody said no, the brutality of face, a situation of meat, rings of action, and rarer and better things. Annotation ©2011 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
A fresh new voice in art and cultural criticism takes on the day's most pressing questions about representations of violence in art.
About the Author
Maggie Nelson is the author of several books, including Bluets and The Art of Cruelty. She teaches at CalArts and lives in Los Angeles, California.
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